How to Interview a Divorce Lawyer
Your chances of achieving a good result in your divorce increase dramatically if you choose an experienced family attorney with whom you “click.”
Putting aside your unfortunate choice of a mate, let’s assume you are a good judge of people. Let’s further assume that you’ve researched how to choose a lawyer, reading blogs like Bobbing for Shysters: Coming up with One That Isn’t Rotten. Plus, you’ve listened to your friends bitch about their lawyers. All of that should qualify you to pick an attorney for yourself, right?
You should ask two kinds of questions at an initial interview with a divorce lawyer. The first type relates specifically to your situation. These are the ones that rattle around your brain loud enough to wake you up at 3:00 AM every night. Like “will my kids be all right?” And, “will I be able to keep my house?” And can I keep my pension?
At the interview stage, no lawyer can say precisely how your case will be resolved. But an experienced family lawyer should be able to give you a range of likely outcomes. You can help by bringing along your last three income tax returns. If you or your spouse owns a business operated by a corporation, bring the corporate returns to the interview as well. Also, bring a “net worth statement” ¾ a fancy name for a list of what you own (assets) and what you owe (liabilities).
Pay close attention not only to what the lawyer says, but how she says it. Do her answers respond fully to your questions? Are they stated with confidence? Is she easy to understand?
Keep in mind that lawyers generally bring their touchy-feely “A-game” to an initial interview. If the lawyer appears distracted or impatient at this point, things will only go down hill from there. You need to have a comfort level with the lawyer. We all know people who just aren’t on our wavelength. Make sure your lawyer isn’t one of them.
The second set of questions at the initial interview consists of the following four questions that are specifically designed to help you choose the right divorce lawyer.
1. What is your experience in family law?
You will want to choose a lawyer who has devoted at least fifty percent of his/her practice to family law, for at least five years. It is not necessary to hire a lawyer who handles only family matters. In fact, an attorney with a more varied background may be better equipped to deal with estate, property or bankruptcy issues that can arise in divorce cases.
The type of experience a lawyer has within the field of family law is important as well. Because more than 90% of divorce cases are settled, you want a lawyer who is an accomplished negotiator. At the same time, you want an experienced litigator, just in case your case falls into that unlucky 10%. Moreover, even in cases that ultimately settle, there are often contested hearings or depositions along the way that require litigation skills.
Finally, you must make the distinction between experience and credentials. Diplomas from top law schools are impressive. I know this because some of my friends have them hanging in their offices, and it impresses me. But diplomas don’t guarantee a quality lawyer. Some of the finest lawyers I know went to law schools you never heard of. And the longer a lawyer has been out of law school, the less relevant it is. Sound judgment and problem-solving skills are more a function of experience than credentials.
2. What roles will support staff and other lawyers play in my case?
If you decide to hire a member of a firm, you want that lawyer¾not a partner or associate attorney¾to be the one who handles all of the significant aspects of your case. If the lawyer balks at such a commitment, consider going to one who feels your case is important enough to remain personally involved with it.
Law firms usually have ample support staff, but not always. Ask about the availability and experience of associate attorneys, paralegals and legal assistants who may work on your case, and what exactly they will be doing.
If you hire a sole practitioner, the quality and role of support staff become even more important. You want your solo attorney to have experienced staff capable of answering your questions and handling routine matters that arise when the attorney is unavailable. Legal secretaries and paralegals, however, should not be making decisions regarding your case, so discuss how all that works. While you’re at it, make sure that you won’t be billed for secretarial/clerical tasks such as scheduling and responding to billing inquiries.
3. How will I be billed?
Make sure you receive a letter agreement that clearly states the details of your fee agreement, before you pay your retainer.
Read the agreement carefully and be sure you understand it. Your lawyer won’t be shy about billing you under the agreement, so don’t be shy about asking about it.
Ask about billing practices. Many lawyers bill in increments of 1/10 of an hour, which means that the smallest amount for which you will be billed is six minutes worth—even for a 3 minute phone call. (This is a good reason, by the way, to wait to call your lawyer until you have more than just one question to ask.)
However, some lawyers charge a minimum of 2/10 of an hour or even a quarter of an hour for each service rendered. It can make a big difference.
A 3 minute phone call to a $450/hr. lawyer who charges in increments of .1 hours will cost you $45.00. The same call to a $350/hr. lawyer who charges you .2 hours will cost you $70.00!
Finally, make sure that the retainer agreement provides that any unused portion of your retainer will be returned to you.
4. How exactly will the attorney/client relationship work?
I hate it when people don’t return my calls, emails, texts or hollers. Some lawyers are notorious for not responding to their clients. Ask how quickly the lawyer will get back to you. If the promised response time exceeds 24 hours, consider going elsewhere. There’s no sense retaining a lawyer who you already know is going to drive you nuts.
Also, find out what tasks you can save money on by doing them yourself. Tell the lawyer that you would like to do some things that you might otherwise have to pay for; like copying, scanning and organizing documents.
Finally, ask how decisions will be made in your case. Generally, clients set goals and attorneys decide how to achieve them. To the extent you can identify your goals at this early stage, ask the lawyer to comment on them. Again, listen not only to the answers themselves, but also to the tone of them. A good working relationship with a lawyer requires mutual respect. Find out before you sign up, if such a relationship is in the cards.